For Russian Farmers, Climate Change Is Nyet So Great

Feb 21, 2016
Originally published on March 2, 2016 10:30 pm

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says last month was the warmest January on record. That sets off alarm bells for climate scientists, but for the average person living in a northern climate, it might not sound so bad.

That's what many people are saying these days in Russia, where the expected icy winter has failed to materialize this year – to widespread joy. Of course, any climate scientist will tell you that an unusually warm month — or even a whole warm winter — doesn't mean much. It's the long-term trend that counts.

But that's not how it appears to the popular imagination, says George Safonov, who heads the Center for Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He says there's a big temptation in northern countries to believe that warmer weather can bring economic opportunities, such as improving conditions for farming.

"Before 2010, we had a rising harvest rate for crops, and that was explained as a very positive impact of climate change," he says. "It was not easy to convince people that this is not correct."

The problem, Safonov says, is that while warmer weather might open up more land in cold regions such as Siberia, it's already causing havoc on existing farmland in the south.

Some of Russia's most productive farmland, the fertile steppes around Rostov-on-Don, has been facing a series of droughts.

"We had one-third of all harvests lost in 2010, one-fourth of all crops lost in 2012. And if you calculate, that was about $12 -$15 billion damage," he says. In other words, a huge loss for Russian farmers.

We went to the Rostov region to see what farmers are doing about all this.

There's nothing growing there now, but driving through the miles of plowed fields, you can see why this area is called the breadbasket of Russia.

The writer Anton Chekhov said it was so fertile, you could poke a stick into the ground and it would take root and grow.

Vladimir Dvornik runs an agricultural cooperative called Progress, a former Soviet collective farm. He says he and his fellow growers have had to change their crops to deal with drier conditions.

"We gave up growing some kinds of grain, soy and some vegetables, like peppers and tomatoes," Dvornik says. Now, he says he has switched to winter wheat and other crops that do well in drier weather.

He says it's not a catastrophe for local growers, because they've had time to adapt, but drought could cause severe problems if it keeps getting warmer.

As for moving Russian farming to Siberia, Dvornik says that's nonsense, and so does economist Safonov.

There's no infrastructure for farming there, Safonov says, no expertise and no population of potential farm workers. Between losing farmland in the south, and starting large-scale farming in the north, the costs would be huge.

"Overall, I would estimate these potential losses as a few dozens of billions of dollars per year if we don't do anything," Safonov says.

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The U.S. agency that keeps track of the climate known as NOAA says last month was the warmest January on record. And that sets off alarm bells for climate scientists, but for the average person living in a northern climate, it might not sound so bad - lower heating bills, less time shoveling snow. Bring it on, they might say. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow that warmer winters might not be a blessing.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The nightly weather forecast on Russia's NTV channel has been strange for weeks. The expected blast of Russian winter never really materialized.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: "Moscow is breaking new temperature records," the weathercaster says. It was well above freezing overnight, something that hasn't happened for almost 30 years. Of course, any climate scientist will tell you that an unusually warm month - or even a whole warm winter - doesn't mean much. It's the long-term trend that counts. But this weather does have Russians talking.

GEORGE SAFONOV: There's - first of all, a very quick reaction that OK, so it means it will become warmer, but this is good because warmer is better.

FLINTOFF: That's George Safonov, an environmental economist at the Higher School of Economics here in Moscow. He says there's a big temptation in northern countries to believe that warmer weather can bring economic opportunities, such as improving conditions for farming.

SAFONOV: Before 2010, we had a rising harvest rate for crops. And that was explained as a very positive impact of climate change. It was not easy to convince people that this is not correct.

FLINTOFF: The problem, Safonov says, is that while warmer weather might open up more land in cold regions such as Siberia, it's already causing havoc on existing farmland in the south. Some of Russia's most productive farmland, the fertile steppes around Rastov-on-Don, has been facing a series of droughts.

SAFONOV: We had one-third of all harvests lost in 2010, one-fourth of all crops lost in 2012. And if you calculate, that was about $12-$15 billion damage.

FLINTOFF: In other words, a huge loss for Russian farmers. We went to the Rostov region to see what farmers are doing about all this. There's nothing growing here now, but driving through the miles of plowed fields, you can see why this area is called the breadbasket of Russia. Vladimir Dvornik runs an agricultural cooperative called Progress. He says he and his fellow growers have had to change their crops to deal with drier conditions.

VLADIMIR DVORNIK: (Through interpreter) We gave up growing some kinds of grain, soy and some vegetables, like peppers and tomatoes.

FLINTOFF: He says he switched to winter wheat and other crops that do well in drier weather. He says it's not a catastrophe for local growers because they've had time to adapt, but drought could cause severe problems if it keeps getting warmer. As for moving Russian farming to Siberia, Dvornik says that's nonsense, and so does economist George Safonov. There's no infrastructure for farming there, he says, no expertise and no population of potential farm workers. Between losing farmland in the south and starting large-scale farming in the north, the costs would be huge.

SAFONOV: Over all, I would estimate these potential losses - a few dozen of billions of dollars per year if we don't do anything.

FLINTOFF: In the end, he says, it will be cheaper for Russia to switch to energy sources that don't contribute to climate change. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.